With gas prices hopping up and down, many car buyers are taking a long, hard look at more fuel efficient automobiles. And while gasoline/electric hybrids are the latest trend, many forget that diesel engines have long provided superior fuel economy. But currently the only diesel cars available in the U.S. come from Volkswagen. However, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a choice.

Indeed, with 3 different models, the New Beetle, Golf, and Jetta, and a couple of trim levels within those model lines to choose from, for 2001 Volkswagen is serving up diesel power in a total of 5 flavors.

But before we take an individual taste test, let’s take a look at the common thread that ties these models together.

It’s Volkswagen’s amazing 1.9 liter, turbocharged direct injection, in-line 4 cylinder diesel engine. TDI output is 90 horsepower, peaking at 3750 rpm, while its 155 pound-feet of torque is there at just 1900 rpm.

Don’t let the modest horsepower fool you. Remember, when it comes to pulling power, torque beats horsepower any day and this little oil burner has the same pulling power as VW’s gas turbo-4. Trust us, a hands on drive will convince you this little TDI powerplant is plenty potent in its own way.

For on-track testing purposes we chose the Jetta, the largest of the three. 0 to 60 mph was reached in a resonable 11.3 seconds. While the quarter mile passed in 18.3 seconds at 75 mph. These numbers are right in the same neighborhood as some of the large SUVs we test.

As you might expect torque comes on strong right from launch. Power remains strong to 4,200 rpm where it starts to drop off considerably before reaching its 4,650 redline. For optimum performance, you’ll need to short shift the car at around 4,000 rpm.

But forget the numbers. Real world driving is what a TDI equipped Volkswagen is all about and out here this engine positively shines. With plenty of bottom end, around town cruising is done at near idle. But a very responsive throttle takes full advantage of that low end punch and allows for some serious darting when you want to shake that large SUV off your tail. Of course, as always, use your signals. Then go for that hole shot with confidence!

Out on the highway it’s more of the same. Motoring at 70 mph is effortless, with plenty of power for passing. And unlike diesels of old, the TDI is quiet, smooth, and soot free. The TDI is also capable of stretching your fuel dollar farther than a locker room wedgie.

EPA estimates peg the Jetta TDI’s fuel economy at 42 mpg city, 49 highway. In a weekend mix of city and rural driving with our 5-speed manual trans equipped tester, a 4-speed automatic is also available, one of our staffers averaged 44 mpg over 250 miles. Think of it. Nearly the economy of a Honda Insight but with a rear seat and trunk.

The rest of the Jetta TDI’s performance profile is equally attractive. In braking, the four-wheel ABS controlled disc brakes brought us to a stop from 60 in 126 feet. Stability is first rate, with no lock up and just a touch of fade after 8 runs on a 90+ degree day.

The Jetta’s solid chassis, compliant front strut and rear beam suspension, and all that low down TDI grunt, make taking on the low speed slalom a delight. Understeer on turn in is minimal. The well balanced chassis handled transitions with ease, even when it lifts an inside rear tire as all small VW’s do. The only negitive was considerable tire slide from the standard 15 inch rubber on the hot and oily track.

Inside, the Jetta offers two trim levels, GL and GLS and snug room for 5. With fabric or leather trim, plenty of power accessories, and a kickin’ Monsoon stereo, a CD player/changer is optional, you can tailor a TDI Jetta to fit just about any budget.

As for those other “diesel flavors”? The Golf gives you the same mechanicals, suspension, and interior options as the Jetta with the added benefits of hatchback utility.

The New Beetle too, offers similar componetry plus a heaping helping of nostalgia and arched styling that’s all its own. With a versatile line up like that, there’s a TDI out there for you. The bad new is, you’ll have to order it. With unstable fuel prices, VW recently announced they have sold out there entire allotment of TDI cars for the U.S. this year. If you want one, you’ll have to stand in line. But its worth it.

As for pricing. VW charges only $1050 extra for the TDI. Golf GL starts at $16,895. GLS at $18,100. The New Beetle GLS starts at $18,450. Jetta GL is $18,695, GLS, $19,400. Our Jetta GLS tester rang up to $19,875. To us, that’s quite a bargin.

If you haven’t driven a diesel car since the days of unreliable, smoke belching, loud clattering powertrains, you owe it to yourself and your wallet to check out a TDI-equipped Volkswagen. Because we think that, like us, and a lot of other TDI converts, once you experience new diesel technology, you’ll be sold…out too.